Theater Reviews

The Hollow Crown’s “1 Henry VI”: Crosscuts, Casting, and Factional Conflict

Elizabeth E. Tavares (Pacific University) 

The second season of the award-winning series, The Hollow Crown, opens with a dramatic birds-eye view of the English Channel and the Cliffs of Dover as we follow a soldier’s furious ride through red and white eglantine. Dover happens to be the closest point between England and France. The roses and geography are visual aids alongside Dame Judi Dench’s voice-over: Henry V has taken France and married its princess, securing England’s legacy legally and militarily. Dench isn’t a cast member in this production, but her inclusion reinforces the sense that there are certain actors who (to film and television audiences) verify what Andrew Higson calls English heritage cinema. The three-part series focusing on William Shakespeare’s War of the Roses tetralogy capitalizes on such casting strategies as well as crosscut sequences to emphasize the threat of a managed monarch to the commonwealth.

Both seasons one and two start by representing the king, Richard II and Henry VI respectively, as naïve, concerned with religious matters to the point of neglecting governance, and seemingly at the mercy of the loudest voice in the room. The question of whether a monarch was in control of her councilors or they her was a hot topic in the 1590s, when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. According to Tudorbetheans (that is, historians focused on sixteenth-century politics in England), debate in the reign of Elizabeth I was characterized by factional groups attempting to appeal to various bodies of opinion in order to bounce, pressurize, or otherwise influence the Crown’s decisions.

Several other recent period serials stress similar problems of factional influence. In the current Hollow Crown, the king’s decisions are hobbled by Lord Somerset (Ben Miles) withholding troops at a crucial point, just as Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) does in STARZ’s The White Queen. Both men also manipulate the influence of powerful women, Queen Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo) and Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), by withholding sex from them. One wonders how intentional the casting of Miles is, considering the major video-on-demand competitor to The Hollow Crown, released around the same time: Netflix’s The Crown. Depicting Elizabeth Windsor’s early years as monarch, Miles plays Group Captain Townsend, long-time lover of the Queen’s sister, another Lady Margaret, whom he was never allowed to wed. Another bit of pointed casting is Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame as Lord Protector Gloucester. Audiences familiar with both series seem to be encouraged to understand Gloucester’s role as a well-meaning head of a family left without a male heir the larger community can get behind. Such subtleties of capitalizing on other period drama casting choices can be easily overshadowed by the star billing of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, like Tom Hiddleston as Hal in the first season. That both series start with an episode that does not feature their star reminds us just to what degree a small group of faces have come to build and define the core themes that viewers associate with English history.

In television and film, the commonplace of the “hollow crown,” from a monologue in the Richard II, has come to stand in for the question of legitimacy. It is not a question of what makes a good king, but rather what does a good king look like to the broadest possible audience. Ben Whishaw’s brilliant Richard II can’t seem to pin this down, and so he attempts to take on the trappings of three different models of kingship before losing the crown. Henry IV and Henry V are haunted by the question of their legitimacy, having garnered support from a wide variety of men but are still unsure of God’s favor. Henry V’s conquests in France seem to solidify that favor. It isn’t really surprising, then, that Henry VI seems unconcerned with questions of his own legitimacy until the factions of York and Lancaster choose to test it. So while the episode bears the monarch’s name, at its center is Lord Somerset, applying the necessary torque to move the plot and test the pliability of Henry VI. A series of crosscutting sequences dramatize the ways in which the factions of York, the heirs of the deposed Richard II, and Lancaster, men ostensibly on the side of Henry VI, manipulate monarchal policy.

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Lord Somerset (Ben Miles) enjoys a massage rather than join the fray with Sir William Lacy (Tom Beard). Robert Viglasky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

The first sequence takes place at the siege of Rouen, the last chance the English have of keeping their title in France. It is a bloody battle led by Joan of Arc and a young Dauphin in the shadow of muddy battlements. Violent deaths of ordinary men as well as entire noble families like the Talbots transition to the peaceful camp of Somerset. His men enjoy wine, gambling, and festive music while he takes in fruit and a massage. Arguing the plan was too rashly conceived, Somerset withholds his troops and resources to spite York’s efforts to get back in the good graces of Henry VI. The deaths of the Talbots are used by Warwick to try to unify York and Lancaster after the battle: “the English army that was divided into two parties must now conjoin.” Like an earlier moment where Gloucester and Winchester are at one another’s throats, Henry VI and his proxies are unable to mediate between the peers of the realm in part because they never redress the perceived imbalance of influence motivating the small conflicts between factions.

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From left: Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo) is brought to England while Joan of Arc (Laura Morgan) is burned in France. Robert Vigalsky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

The second sequence of crosscutting emphasizes the two different approaches by Somerset and York to the same problem: how to bring back a perceived victory from France when none, realistically, can be had? The English launch a surprise attack at night, breaking with military decorum, as a last-ditch attempt to rout the French. Audiences follow both men on separate, solo excursions down long, dark hallways. Somerset happens upon the lovely Margaret of Anjou, daughter to a minor French duke. In nothing but a white dressing gown, she doesn’t have much choice but to accept his offer to marry the English king. York also finds a woman in a dressing gown, except Joan of Arc is ranting and splattered by stigmata. Somerset returns to England with a live woman while York returns with a dead one. Henry VI is immediately smitten, and lives every day with the woman who, to him at least, represents a victory in France as well as Somerset’s loyalty. The burning of a religious fanatic simply can’t replicate the same day-to-day favor for York.

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While the Lord Protector is murdered in the Tower, Margaret and Somerset consummate their passions. Robert Viglasky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

The third sequence of crosscuts marks the climax of the episode, wherein sex, death, and power commingle. Having caught another lady in a white dressing gown up to no good, Somerset and Margaret convince Henry VI to have Gloucester’s ambitious wife, Eleanor, publicly shamed and exiled. Gloucester is forced to give up his protectorate and is locked in the Tower of London until his trial to discover whether he was party to his wife’s witchcraft. Left in the protection of the Lancastrian faction, the camera oscillates back and forth between the murder of Gloucester in the tower and Somerset with Margaret in bed. Having managed the motivations of king and council, Somerset finds himself the new “protector” and the center of power in England.

At dawn, Henry VI is wracked by the death of his surrogate parent and banishes the entire Lancastrian faction for their inability to guard Gloucester. Margaret’s tears easily convince him to take back the punishment and keep her lover close. Outraged by this weakness, York makes public his claim to the throne. Warwick and a number of followers follow him back to his estate to make ready for war. The episode concludes with his summoning the sons of York: Edward, George, Edmond, and a shadow limping through a doorway, foreshadowing the rise of Richard III. The outline of Richard reminds audiences of the star billing they had been waiting for, Cumberbatch in the titular role. Cumberbatch’s stage and film career grew up together, so in some ways, his inclusion in the series brings those trajectories together. Likewise, crosscuts are functionally not possible on stage, and so unique highlight dichotomies latent in Shakespeare’s text. Thus, through crosscutting and casting, “1 Henry VI” emphasizes the ghosts of fraught lineage, factional conflict, and recurring cycles of violence in the name of God as cornerstones of English history—then and now.

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Categories: Theater Reviews

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